Two Forces

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche introduces the concept of two forces that influenced the formation and direction of Greek art: the Apollonian and the Dionysian, named after the two sons of Zeus, Apollo and Dionysus.

The Apollonian creative impulse is likened to a daydream. It is a product of the mind, of reason, of wanting to fashion the world in your image by creating your own illusion. Unlike the Apollonian, which is an illusion, the Dionysian is real and is an intoxicating force that manifests itself in intense emotions like the ecstacy of joy and suffering, and, when rising to the highest level, can generate a feeling of oneness with the universe. Music is used as an example of Dionysian art, and sculpture of Apollonian, though rarely a work of art is purely one or the other.

I think that Nietzsche’s concept of the two creative forces can be applied to modern design. It is not an accurate translation as the original idea is more specific to the Greek problem and has a different interpretation, nevertheless, there is a common thread that can be carried over to design, which in turn can be used to create a new lens through which we can look at our everyday work.

Apollonian Concerned with reason. The Apollonian force in design is what creates order and what makes the product fulfill its function. Form follows function is its motto and it achieves it by applying logic, scientific method and mathematics to a problem that needs to be solved. Grids, rhythm, symmetry and minimalism are all symptoms of the Apollonian influence, as well as a distaste for everything "superfluous".

Dionysian Concerned with emotion. The Dionysian force in design isn't even really about design in the sense of arriving at a solution to a problem, but is instead about adding the human element to the solution — that is, making the use of a product enjoyable. Textures, illustrations, patterns, decorations, ornaments and style are all symptoms of the Dionysian force at work.

The two forces have different aims, but they’re not opposed to each other, they don’t pull in opposite directions. Good design combines both forces in a harmonious way, so that both, the function of a thing is fulfilled in the best way possible, but also the human element is not forgotten for the product will only be valuable through use, and making the use of the product more enjoyable increases its value and enriches the lives of the people who use it.

The Apollonian instinct to get rid of everything superfluous and follow logic can extinguish the Dionysian impulse to communicate emotion. This has been done by banishing ornaments and decoration from modern art. Patterns, textures, illustrations and style also come into conflict with the Apollonian view. Everything on the product or on the page has to justify itself, and so the idea that the creator may simply wish to communicate an emotion by means of decoration becomes foreign.

But merely satisfying a function is not enough. Elevating the design to a level where it enriches people’s lives by giving them pleasure through aesthetics gives that design a quality that cannot be matched by a purely logical implementation that works well but ignores that the product would be used in the human hands, and so would affect the lives of its users, if only a little.

Published January 2012